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Reports: Wake Forest QB Sam Hartman enters transfer portal, Notre Dame could be beneficiary

Mike Berardino
South Bend Tribune
Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman throws beads to his teammates after being named Most Valuable Player of the Gasparilla Bowl NCAA college football game Friday, Dec. 23, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

FERNANDINA BEACH, Fla. — During his record-setting career at Wake Forest, quarterback Sam Hartman made the “Slow Mesh” his signature move at the controls of the widely used RPO offense.

How long it takes Hartman to find a new home as a graduate transfer remains to be seen. According to multiple reports, Hartman entered the transfer portal on Tuesday and Notre Dame is viewed as the leading contender to land the potential game-changer.

Hartman, who will turn 24 in late July, closed out his five-year run as the ACC’s career leader in touchdown passes. He led the Demon Deacons to a 27-17 win over Missouri in the Gasparilla Bowl on Friday night in Tampa.

More:Practice notes: Tyler Buchner set to reclaim starting QB role for Notre Dame in Gator Bowl

That was the second straight bowl win with Hartman at the controls for the Deacons, who trounced Rutgers 38-10 in the Gator Bowl last New Year’s Eve.

Sophomore Tyler Buchner is set to start at quarterback with freshman Steve Angeli as his backup as No. 21 Notre Dame heads into a Dec. 30 Gator Bowl meeting with 19th-ranked South Carolina.

Drew Pyne, who went 8-2 as the starter after Buchner required left (non-throwing) shoulder surgery in mid-September, recently landed at Arizona State after announcing his intention to transfer on Dec. 2.  

“We’re looking for the right guy to come in here and make an impact,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees said on Dec. 11. “There’s an ecosystem in the quarterback room that we want to keep intact. It has to be the right person, and Jack (Coan) was that.”

Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman (10) looks to throw against the Florida State Seminoles defense during the first half last Saturday. MELINA MYERS/USA TODAY Sports

Under Rees’ tutelage, Coan went 11-2 as the Irish starter in 2021. The Wisconsin graduate transfer passed for 3,150 yards and 25 touchdowns while throwing seven interceptions and taking 34 sacks.

Hartman, whose 110 career touchdown passes moved him past former Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd (2011-13), has been a known quantity to the Rees family since his high school days in the Carolinas.

Notre Dame director of scouting Bill Rees, Tommy’s father, was director of player personnel at Wake Forest for two seasons (2015-16). The elder Rees saw potential early on in Hartman, who committed to Wake Forest on July 7 before his junior season (2016).

“He’s got a good eye for talent,” Tommy Rees said Tuesday when asked in general about his father’s contributions. “He’s been doing it his whole life, and he’s a guy that I think the staff leans on. He’s been a really valuable part of our entire evaluation process, regardless of the (player’s) age.”

Asked specifically about his father’s keen eye for quarterback evaluation, the younger Rees agreed.

“He’s always been quarterback/O-line, something he’s hung his hat on,” Rees said. “I’m obviously very appreciative of my dad and wouldn’t in the position or surrounded by football if it weren’t for him. He’s got a knack for it.”

Hartman, rated as a three-star prospect in the 2018 recruiting class, enrolled early and was the opening day starter as a freshman that fall. In his fourth career start, Hartman was the losing quarterback against Notre Dame and Ian Book on Sept. 22, 2018.

That 56-27 blowout in Winston-Salem, N.C., saw Hartman pass for just 110 yards while absorbing three sacks. Book, in just his second career start, went on to go 30-5 as the winningest quarterback in Irish history.

Notre Dame is scheduled to face Wake Forest next season for the first time since that Hartman-Book matchup. The Deacons visit South Bend on Oct. 28.

Wake Forest has gone 38-24 in the past five seasons, including an 11-3 mark in 2021 that tied the school record for wins in a season. Hartman accounted for 50 combined touchdowns in 2021, including 39 through the air, and has rushed for 17 touchdowns in his career.

The Deacons went just 8-5 this season as Hartman struggled at times behind a leaky line. He was sacked 36 times, tied for 10th among FBS quarterbacks, and was hit as he threw eight times, tied for fifth-most.

Pyne, by comparison, was sacked just 15 times in 10 starts but still had nine passes batted or tipped at the line.

Hartman went 27-18 (.600) as the starter, including a 12-9 mark in 300-yard passing games. That included a 4-4 mark on 300-yard passing days this season, when the Deacons allowed 29.3 points per game, tied for 93rd in the country.

Notre Dame has dropped its past two games featuring an individual passing performance of 300 yards or more by its quarterback: Pyne's 318-yard swan song in the Nov. 26 loss at USC and Coan's school-record 509 passing yards in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State.

Before that, Notre Dame had won 11 straight when its quarterback reached 300 passing yards, dating to DeShone Kizer's 471-yard passing day in an October 2016 win over Syracuse. Book went 8-0 when passing for 300-plus yards and Coan passed his way to road wins at Florida State and Stanford.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick was asked about the search for an experienced transfer quarterback during a recent appearance on the “GoJo” podcast with former Irish offensive lineman Mike Golic Jr.

“In the college game and the professional game today, it’s all about quarterback play,” Swarbrick said. “And so that’s going to be a big part of what defines next year for us. … We lose some very talented people who contribute a lot to the team, but I think in some facets we should be better.”

Hartman, 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, missed the season opener after undergoing Aug. 8 surgery to address Paget-Schroetter syndrome, a blood-clotting condition also known as “effort thrombosis.” He was medically cleared to return to action in early September and has started every game since.

“Evaluating quarterbacks is an imperfect science,” Tommy Rees said on Dec. 21 as the Irish signed four-star recruit Kenny Minchey from Hendersonville, Tenn. “If somebody figured it out, they’d be making a lot of money out there. You have first-round picks that don’t make it. You have sixth-round picks that do. You have three-stars that become first-round picks. You have five-stars that never play.”

Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees during the Notre Dame Blue-Gold Spring Football game on Saturday, April 23, 2022, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

When it comes to leadership and the “it” factor, some have it and some don’t. Hartman’s production and success at Wake Forest would suggest he qualifies.

“You’re always looking for what is the intangible thing that makes a quarterback really go,” Rees said. “ “You can line up 40 guys in shorts and throw the football, and you’ll probably say all 40 of them are good enough. But what separates those guys from the others?

“You look at a guy that loves the game of football. I think that is so critical to that position. … There’s a real work ethic and drive that’s important at that position. When you can care that much and have your work ethic be something that shines through at the quarterback position, that is going to earn the respect of your teammates right away and that is going to drive your leadership position.”

Hartman’s arm strength and downfield accuracy make him an analytical darling of sorts. According to Pro Football Focus, Hartman’s 14 passing touchdowns on throws of 30-plus yards in 2021 were five more than the next closest FBS quarterback, Stetson Bennett IV, who led Georgia to its first national title in four decades.

From 2018-21, Hartman was second among Power Five quarterbacks in most deep passing yards in a season. His 1,613 yards on deep throws in 2021 trailed only Joe Burrow’s Heisman Trophy-winning output in 2019, when Burrow led LSU to the national title.  

Burrow, who led the Cincinnati Bengals to the Super Bowl last season, was the only Power Five quarterback from 2014-21 with more completions on throws of 20-plus yards than Hartman’s 45 in 2021. Jared Goff, who took the Rams to the Super Bowl after starring at Cal, was next with 44 such throws in 2015.  

Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.